Hierocles, On Marriage
A Classical Pythagorean Text Examines
The Bond of Love That Creates a Family
Hierocles of Alexandria
The following text, by Pythagorean thinker
Hierocles of Alexandria (Fifth Century, C.E.), is
reproduced from the volume “The Pythagorean
Sourcebook and Library”, An Anthology of Ancient
Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras and
Pythagorean Philosophy, Compiled and Translated by
Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Phanes Press, 1987, pp. 281-284.
The discussion of marriage is most necessary as the whole of our race is naturally social, and the most fundamental social association is that effected by marriage.
Without a household there could be no cities; and households of the unmarried are most imperfect, while on the contrary those of the married are most complete. That is why, in our treatise On Families, we have shown that the married state is to be preferred by the sage, while a single life is not to be chosen except under peculiar circumstances.
Therefore, inasmuch as we should imitate the man of intellect so far as possible, and as for him marriage is preferable, it is evident it will be so also for us, except if hindered by some exceptional circumstance. This is the first reason for marriage.
Entirely apart from the model of the sage, Nature herself seems to incite us thereto. Not only did she make us gregarious, but adapted to sexual intercourse, and proposed the procreation of children and stability of life as the one and universal work of wedlock. Now Nature justly teaches us that a choice of such things as are fit should be made so as to accord with what she has procured for us.
Every animal, therefore, lives in conformity to its natural constitution, and so also every plant lives in harmony with its laws of life. But there exists this difference, that the latter do not employ any reasoning or calculation in the selection of the things on which they lay hold, using nature along without participation in [rational] soul. Animals are drawn to investigate what may be proper for them by imagination and desires. To us, however, Nature gave reason to survey everything else and, together with all things - nay, prior to all things - to direct its attention to Nature itself, so as to tend towards her as a glorious aim, in an orderly manner, that by choosing everything consonant with her, we might live in a becoming manner. Following this line of argument, he will not error in saying that a family without wedlock is imperfect, for nature does not conceive of the governor without the governed, nor of the governed without a governor. Nature therefore seems to me to shame those who are adverse to marriage.
In the next place, marriage is beneficial. First, because it produces a truly divine fruit, the procreation of children who are, as partaking of our nature, to assist us in all our undertakings while our strength is yet undiminished; and when we shall be worn out, oppressed with old age, they will be our assistants. In prosperity they will be the associates of our joy and, in adversity, the sympathetic diminishers of our sorrows.
Marriage is beneficial not only because of procreation of children, but for the association of a wife. When we are wearied with our labors outside of the home, she receives us with officious kindness and refreshes us by her solicitous attentions. Next, she induces a forgetfulness of molestations outside of the house. The annoyances in the forum, the gymnasium, or the country, and in short all the vicissitudes of our intercourse with friends and acquaintances, do not disturb us so obviously, being obscured by our necessary occupations; but when released from these, we return home, and our mind has time to reflect, then availing themselves of this opportunity these cares and anxieties rush in upon us, to torment us, at the very moment when life seems cheerless and lonely. Then comes the wife as a great solace and, by making some inquiry about external affairs, or by referring to and together considering some domestic problem, she, by her sincere vivacity inspires him with pleasure and delight. It is needless to enumerate all the help a wife can be in festivals, when making sacrifice; or, during her husband’s journeys, she can keep the household running smoothly, and direct at times of urgency; or in managing the domestics and in nursing her husband when sick.
In summary: in order to pass through life properly, all men need two things - the aid of relatives, and kindly sympathy. But nothing can be more sympathetic than a wife, nor anything more kindred than children. Both of these are afforded by marriage; how therefore could be found anything more beneficial?
Also beautiful is a married life, it seems to me. What relation can be more ornamental to a family than that between husband and wife? Not sumptuous edifices, nor walls covered with marble plaster, nor piazzas adorned with stones, which indeed are admired by those ignorant of true goods; nor paintings and arched myrtle walks, nor anything else which is the subject of astonishment to the stupid, is the ornament of a family. The beauty of a household consists in the conjunction of man and wife, united to each other by destiny, and consecrated to the Gods presiding over nuptial birth and houses, and who harmonize, and use all things in common for their bodies, or even their very souls; who likewise exercise a becoming authority over their house and servants; who are properly solicitous about the education of their children; and to the necessities of life pay an attention which is neither excessive nor negligent, but moderate and appropriate. For, as the most admirable Homer says, what can be more excellent
“Than when at home the husband and wife Live in entire unanimity.”
(Odyssey, 7. 183)
That is the reason why I have frequently wondered at those who conceive that life in common with a woman must be burdensome and grievous. Though to them she appears to be a burden and molestation, she is not so; on the contrary, she is something light and easy to be borne or, rather, she possesses the power of charming away from her husband things burdensome and grievous. No trouble so great is there which cannot easily be borne by a husband and wife who harmonize and are willing to endure it in common. But what is truly burdensome and unbearable is imprudence, for through it things naturally light, and among others a wife, become heavy.
To many, indeed, marriage is intolerable, in reality not from itself, or because such an association as this with a woman is naturally insufferable, but when we marry the wrong person and, in addition to this, are ourselves entirely ignorant of life, and unprepared to take a wife in such a way as a free-born woman ought to be taken, then indeed it happens that this association with her becomes difficult and intolerable. Vulgar people do marry in this way, taking a wife neither for the procreation of children, nor for harmonious association, being attracted to the union by the magnitude of the dowry, or through physical attractiveness, or the like; and by following these bad counsellors, they pay no attention to the bride’s disposition and manners, celebrating nuptials to their own destruction, and with crowned doors introduce to themselves instead of a wife a tyrant, whom they cannot resist, and with whom they are unable to contend for chief authority.
Evidently, therefore, marriage becomes burdensome and intolerable to many, not through itself, but through these causes. But it is not wise to blame things which are not harmful, nor to make our own deficient use of these things the cause of our complaint against them. Most absurd, besides, is it feverishly to seek the auxiliaries of friendship, and achieve certain friends and associates to aid and defend us in the vicissitudes of life, without seeking and endeavoring to obtain the relief, defence and assistance afforded us by Nature, by the Gods, and by the laws, through a wife and children.
As to a numerous offspring, it is generally suitable to nature and marriage that all, or the majority of the offspring be nurtured. Many dissent from this, for a not very beautiful reason, through love of riches, and the fear of poverty as the greatest evil. To begin with, in procreating children we are not only begetting assistants, nurses for our old age, and associates in very vicissitude of life - we do not however beget them for ourselves alone, but in many ways also for our parents. To them our procreation of children is gratifying because, if we should suffer anything calamitous prior to their decease we shall, instead of ourselves, leave our children as the support of their old age. Then for a grandfather is it a beautiful thing to be conducted by the hands of his grandchildren, and by them to be considered worthy of every attention. Hence, in the first place, we shall gratify our own parents by paying attention to the procreation of children. In the next, we shall be cooperating with the ardent wishes and fervent prayers of those who begot us. They were solicitous about our birth from the first, thereby looking for an extended succession of themselves, that they should leave behind them children of children, therefore paying attention to our marriage, procreation and nurture. Hence, by marrying and begetting children we shall be, as it were, fulfilling a part of their prayers; while, acting contrarily, we shall be destroying the object of their deliberate choice.
Moreover, it would seem that everyone who voluntarily, and without some prohibiting circumstances avoids marriage and the procreation of children, accuses his parents of madness, as having engaged in wedlock without the right conception of things. Here we see an unavoidable contradiction. How could that man live without dissension who finds a pleasure in living and willingly continues in life, as one who was properly brought into existence by his parents, and yet conceives that for him procreation of offspring is something to be rejected?
We must remember that we beget children not only for our own sake but, as we have already stated, for our parents’; but further also for the sake of our friends and kindred. It is gratifying to see children which are our offspring on account of human kindness, relatives, and security. Like ships which, though greatly agitated by the waves, are secured by many anchors, so do those who have children, or whose friends or relatives have them, ride at anchor in port in absolute security. For this reason, then, will a man who is a lover of his kindred and associates earnestly desire to marry and beget children.
Our country also loudly calls upon us to do so. For after all we do not beget children so much for ourselves as for our country, procuring a race that may follow us, and supplying the community with successors to ourselves. Hence the priest should realize that to the city he owes priests; the ruler, that he owes rulers; the orator, that he owes orators; and in short, the citizen, that he owes citizens. So it is gratifying to those who compose a choric ballet that it should continue perennially; and as an army looks to the continuance of its soldiers, so the perpetuation of its citizens is a matter of concern to a city. A city would not need succession were it only a temporary grouping, of duration commensurate with the lifetime of any one man; but as it extends to many generations, and if it invokes a fortunate genius may endure for many ages, it is evidently necessary to direct its attention not only to its present, but also to its future, not despising our native soil, nor leaving it desolate, but establishing it in good hopes from our prosperity.Hierocles, On Marriage
See also the text “Turning a House Into a Temple”, by Carlos Cardoso Aveline, which is available at our associated websites.
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